Ideas to Innovation - Season Two
Shara Mohtadi: The next few years are really critical to see to what degree the magnitude of the emissions that in the next five, ten, 15 years can come down or not.
Ed White: In 2030, we’re going to have a huge pressure placed on our energy grids as we transition mobility cars and trucks from gasoline to and diesel to electric.
Intro: Ideas to Innovation from Clarivate.
Neville Hobson: Most scientists agree that if the world is to achieve net zero by 2050 and secure a livable Earth, efforts to implement renewable energy need to be accelerated. Net zero refers to the balance between the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. We reached net zero when the amount we add is no more than the amount taken away.
Looking to build a better, more sustainable world has been talked about for years. It’s a substantial part of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or UN SDG in the form of Goal 7, that aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. But are we getting close to achieving this shared global imperative?
Hello and welcome to Ideas to Innovation Season 2. I’m Neville Hobson. In this episode we have two guests, both experts in their individual fields, who will help us address such questions. First, I’d like to welcome Ed White. Ed is Vice President and Principal analyst at Clarivate, based in London. Ed is also co-author of “A study of energy in transition”, a comprehensive report on the role of research and innovation in the world’s shift to sustainable energy sources, published in October 2022.
Welcome, Ed. Thanks for being with us.
Ed White: Thanks Neville. Great to be here.
Neville Hobson: I’m also delighted to welcome Shara Mohtadi, former Chief of Staff, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, at the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, DC. She’s also an advisor to Columbia Climate School in New York and Newlab, an applied innovation and investment platform. Hello, Shara. It’s a pleasure to have you join us.
Shara Mohtadi: Thanks so much. Neville. It’s great to be here.
Neville Hobson: So, Ed, I’d like to start with you. Tell us about the report you coauthored. Who should read it and give us a sense of reactions to it by policymakers and others?
Ed White: Absolutely. So thanks Neville. Clarivate’s interest in sustainable technology and analyzing sustainable technology goes back a very long way. It’s a topic that we’re commissioned by our customers to research on, frankly, a weekly basis. So we are very eager to explore how the global invention and how the global research paper data sets that Clarivate produces, so this is the Derwent Patent Index in the Web of Science, and how they can be used in combination to clarify the status and the interventions that are needed across all sustainability topics – whether those interventions are government policy, whether they’re academic research programs or SME and large corporate R&D investment. Of particular importance is decision and execution speed. We know from the UN IPCC assessment reports that a global temperature rise of 1.4 to 1.8 degrees, even if greenhouse gas emissions are hugely reduced from today’s levels and that that reduction can be achieved by 2050.
So it’s looking like 1.5 degrees is pretty much baked into our climate future, and that is going to have a severe impact on hundreds of millions of people. So this is the climate emergency, fast action is overdue. That temperature increase gets much worse if the transition is slower or lesser. So Clarivate’s mission across the board is to provide guidance and assessment of research trends. Therefore, that has a very specific meaning in the climate emergency, which is around clarity. So one of the difficulties that we see is that understanding the status and the direction of technology development is really lacking an authoritative source of information that’s specific to sustainability. And this is leading to a problem where regulators, when legislators and corporate leaders aren’t really able to assess actual action and capability over, you know, the public statements of intent or ambition for net zero from, you know, many years from now.
So our work has been to address that. How we can combine the might of these datasets which essentially document what we as humanity know technically, so that we can highlight where effort and focus is still required, but do it at a level of detail that is useful. So ultimately, this is actually the purpose of the international patent system where ownership is provided in return for disclosure and the purpose of the scientific publication and peer review process. This is about providing a resource for the next step and the next improvement.
Our report documents how that can be done at scale. So focusing on sustainable energy sources as a critical example and using analytical measures that contextualize activity that’s structured specifically to key questions and technologies.
And in terms of who it’s for and the response – what we’ve seen is interest. Particularly from corporate research leaders and science funding policymakers on how the techniques of innovation measurement can be applied to their activities, how they can ingest this data at scale, how they can use it, and how they can further structure it for their purposes in supporting their decision making. And that’s a good first step.
Neville Hobson: I agree. It sounds very good indeed. So the report observes that it took the global COVID 19 public health crisis to bring about an encouraging drop in carbon emissions in 2020. But as economies and societies sprung back to life, so too have global energy consumption and carbon emissions levels. Shara, with your career focus on advising policymakers and international organizations on mitigating climate change and advancing clean energy policies, how do you see the rate of carbon emissions unfolding over the coming years?
Shara Mohtadi: Thanks Neville, that’s a good question. I think, first, the drop in emissions that we saw during the peak of the COVID crisis was relatively temporary and superficial. Our lifestyle habits had changed our commuting, our air travel and all that. But I think the greatest hope we do have is despite temporarily emissions having gone down and returned to normal level or to pre-COVID levels to a large extent, if not in some countries, actually now having exceeded pre-COVID levels. I think the greatest hope we have is bringing down the emissions, the magnitude of the potential upward swing in emissions. The hope is that as the next few years we can make some really large advances in reducing emissions, really being buoyed and galvanized by, for example, this massive package of federal funding in terms of incentives for consumers and everyday customers of energy efficiency appliances or electric vehicles to take incentives for corporations to build, let’s say, domestic supply of certain critical material components necessary for these cars, etcetera.
So I think the next few years are really critical to see to what degree the magnitude of the emissions that in the next five, ten, 15 years can come down or not.
Neville Hobson: Okay, so the challenge facing scientists, engineers and policymakers is to match ambition with tangible action. They need to balance the environmental, economic and practical imperative for accelerating the uptake and eventual full transition to sustainable energy sources. Ed, is that how you see it?
Ed White: It is, yes. And behind our report, we were trying to use some fundamental patterns that we see in research and innovation. But really addressing the question of how can we use those techniques to speed up development and energy transition. So to do that, what we want to understand is where the talents of scientists and engineers that exist on planet Earth, where would they make the most difference? What needs solving? And to do that, we want to measure what you could call development momentum. So a little bit of background. Almost all technologies and research fronts follow a similar pattern of development. They have early low level interest, a turning point to a period of fast pace in research and invention, followed by further turning point where solutions become economical or they’re replaced and they’re made obsolete, where improvement is limited to, kind of, marginal gains.
What’s interesting about those curves is that because we know the future shape, all we need to do is mathematically model where on the curve the technology is today. So as accelerations and decelerations occur, the models tell us they will continue. And this is what we mean by development momentum. Combining that across the more fundamental research that we see in academic papers, the more applied research that we see in patent filing and indeed the more specific data that we have in how patents are actually being enforced, that gives us the time access of research through development, through commercialization. So it gives us an assessment of maturity. So when we take those techniques and we throw them at these at the sustainable energy question, what we see is a slowdown. Or put another way, we see an approach to completion. So this is particularly true in solar photovoltaic and wind energy sources, and this maps very closely to the cost per kilowatt hour of energy reduction for those sources.
When we look at our maturity measures, this confirms that these renewable sources as a technology development effort no longer require the same level of R&D as they did five or ten years ago. So instead, from an acceleration standpoint, we can start to look at where that effort, whether it’s government, whether it’s academic or corporate, could be better applied, where it could be posted now. And the immature field is oceanic energy sources, so this is things like wave and tidal power where we do not see the same level of maturity. It also means that development effort today would likely be best spent on solving for the uptake of technology. So what do you need to scale are regional national energy infrastructure, how you store energy when renewable sources are offline so at night or when there isn’t much wind. And here you’re looking at grid storage batteries, you’re looking at cheap and large scale and possibly not compact battery technology that we’re familiar with in a phone or a car where, you know, you’re really worried about how heavy they are or how big they are, and then hopefully avoiding the need for quite expensive lithium. And lithium is also quite impactful in its extraction.
And then there is addressing how renewable sources can always meet the energy needs of the grid. And it’s here where probably a mix of renewables makes most sense. At bioenergy, hydroelectricity, non-fossil fuel renewables and tidal power so that all the bases are covered for a reliable energy infrastructure. And bringing all that together, using all of these metrics that give us the ability to focus in on where intervention would be best placed.
Neville Hobson: Right. Thanks for that assessment. That’s very interesting, listening to you. A question for you Shara – now that you’ve left the Biden administration and you’re working with the clean energy industry, specifically with young startup companies, what’s the reaction to the US infrastructure spending you helped develop?
Shara Mohtadi: You know, I think it’s a great question and it’s interesting now, having stepped out of the administration, I think we all tend to work in our own orbits in a way, and being in the government is no different. So now being on the outside and working and investing in young startup companies, it’s amazing to see the ripple effects, indirect impacts and indirect benefits that the federal funding, which is really mostly dedicated to the demonstration and deployment and larger infrastructure that needs to be built to support the clean energy transition and less so directly on supporting very young, innovative companies that have the next best invention, let’s say, related to the clean energy field.
However one of these ripple effects that we’re seeing that’s very interesting in the US is that although we see an overall downturn, for example, in the tech sector and often, you know, with the riskier investments from, let’s say, venture capital that goes into startups, these are the first pools of funding that would dry up in a bit of an economic downturn. However, we’re seeing that, specifically with startups in the clean energy and climate focused space – there is more interest and appetite in these sort of startups than their peers in the tech space because of that boost of subsidies and sort of the government overall tailwinds. Again, on the larger scale infrastructure side, that have downstream impacts to help, you know, let’s say the two guys out of Detroit who have the next best idea on streamlining some battery component.
And so, for example, many of these startups, again, may not be direct recipients of U.S. federal funding because these are larger-scale pots of funding. It will be very useful to have this entire ecosystem of companies, from young startups to big manufacturers, who can really help drive economic growth in this country. As we see overall a downturn in the next year or so.
Neville Hobson: Okay. That’s actually a really good assessment of what’s happening in the U.S. And it brings me to something in the Energy in Transition report, the two powerhouses of research and innovation globally, that’s mainland China and the United States, are closely matched in terms of cumulative scientific research output for renewable energy sources. Might that be changing, though? I wonder, Ed, what’s going on in China?
Ed White: Yeah, one of the things that we looked at in the report, as you say, Neville is the impact on the volume of renewable energy technology on a national basis. So our data contains information on where research is occurring and we have measures of the impact and the importance and the investment levels going into each unit of output research, whether it’s a paper, whether it’s an article, whether it’s a patent.
So we can aggregate that, we can we can look at it at scale and we can look at directionality. China is interesting because in both scientific research and patent output, it has been growing exceptionally quickly for the last 20 years. There are a lot of papers and patent registrations from China. Anybody who works with these data sources will know that data point like the back of their hand, and that’s across the board in all areas of science and engineering. Today that volume is being joined by rapid increases in our quality measures. So volume, yes. And impact and novelty and all the other things that we measure on those quality measurements, they’re all increasing at the same time. That is true in the renewable space as well. So to put that in context, a decade ago, China ranked 10th in renewable energy invention strength, so not on a volume metric basis, but on a kind of per unit basis. Today, its first. The US is still there and consistently at the top, but it’s been joined by China as, like you say, level a powerhouse of innovation in this space. Another way of looking at it is looking at it from the perspective of focus. So what proportion of all of the patents filed in China and all of the patents filed in the United States is in these renewable energy data sources? China, it’s consistantly only one and a half to 2% of national patent activity all the way back to 2008. In the US it was around 1%. Now it’s down to less than half a percent.
So we are seeing a shift. We’re seeing a shift where China was primarily a manufacturing hub, making the technology of others to today. It’s, you know, it’s a source of technology itself and it has layers to of interest to it. So when you dive into this data, you see an incredible number of specialist Chinese firms, hundreds and hundreds of companies that are focusing on specific problems and components within the supply chains of solar and wind and battery technology.
And that has implications because one of the policy benefits of renewable energy is energy security. And clearly this is a hot topic for the world at the moment in terms of traditional fossil fuel supply. And so while renewable energy generation is inherently local, you know, the wind turbine is in the United States, it’s in the UK, it’s in Germany, is in Denmark, the best and most efficient parts and components in future may not be. And what that means is that governments and policy makers, they need to factor into the energy transition, that supply chain piece, and it speaks to the fundamental level of support and intervention that their national R&D capability has.
Neville Hobson: That is most interesting, that assessment there. And I’m just wondering actually what you’ve described Ed, what you set out is significant in terms of what’s going to be happening next in the context of those United Nations goals and all the things we’ve discussed up to this point. I just wanted to ask you, Shara, your thoughts. What do you see and think about what Ed’s just outlined? What source do you have that you could add to that?
Shara Mohtadi: Thank you for that, Ed. I think that we will be seeing more, almost geopolitical and trade-related, tensions in the race to greening the economy worldwide. I’d mention a few areas in which that’s already the case. I think, in the context of China and the US, similarly, we are seeing the sort of – whether it’s the fact that ultimately a number of components to produce solar panels originate from China and are not able to be fully sourced domestically in the United States or at a price parity or in a cost-efficient manner, but that we have other, you know, tensions and competition with China is challenging. And we’re already seeing, even in the solar projects in the U.S. that have been planned and in the pipeline in different states around the country this year, we’ve seen some supply chain disruptions due to some of these trade disagreements. And the hold for the Biden administration to make certain decisions, for example, has already been affecting projects. Again, planning to be built, or in the process of being built. So hopefully these things will resolve themselves. But it’s, I think, these interesting geopolitical tensions and challenges just will only continue to grow. As also the resources around building green infrastructure, renewable energy, etc. are finite as well.
Neville Hobson: But that’s that’s great. Thank you for that Shara. So we focused on the mid-century as our deadline to save the planet, if I can describe it that way. But how do you both see something closer than that? Does the next 5 to 8 years, taking us really to 2030 as opposed to 2050, what can we expect for the development of sustainable energy by that year? Shara, would you kick us off with that little viewpoint? What’s your thinking?
Shara Mohtadi: Yes. That’s great. I think that we have the next seven years until 2030. These are really the critical years. And again, the sort of the package of massive U.S. spending and incentives are meant to create a foundation for this swell of green infrastructure development. And I mentioned earlier, you know, you have let’s say, in your own household what the U.S. incentives will allow you to do and there are some kind of income based incentives.
So depending on your household income, you may or may not qualify for certain of these incentives. But for example, whether it’s a rebate on your electric vehicle purchase or deciding to invest in more energy efficiency home appliances. But I’d like to actually point out one of the biggest challenges we’re going to see in the face of these federal investments and incentives in the U.S. and worldwide as we get to 2030. Often in the U.K. you have these same challenges with community acceptance of these large-scale renewable projects, whether it’s out in the countryside, whether you’re talking about rural New York state or, you know, a few hours outside of London, you have these same issues in which communities might be excited about the abstract prospect of greening the economy and sustainable energy. But when it comes to actually citing a large-scale wind farm, you know, onshore wind turbines or a large-scale solar farm, that’s where we’re seeing a lot of tensions and where, you know, we’ll see when the rubber really hits the road and you have the right macro policy incentives to build, again, large-scale wind farms at the end of the day, what will it take for communities and everyday people to be comfortable with, you know, a wind turbine out in their in their viewpoint, out their window?
And that is something that also cannot be scaled or generically done right. Each community has its history and its preferences and its local politics. So that’s one of the most interesting things will watch out for. And hopefully, we can bridge this tension between every many people saying they want a renewable future and then what it actually means when it’s in their own backyard.
Neville Hobson: Yeah, that’s a really good perspective. How do you see it, Ed? Is that a similar perspective you have?
Ed White: I love Shara’s perspective because one of the things it tells me is that the conversation has actually shifted on a layer here, which is a very good thing. I can see the barriers that she’s talking about, but it’s worth taking note that one of the biggest barriers to renewable uptake has been overcome. The technology development that’s occurred has successfully made solar and wind and even offshore wind comparable or even cheaper in cost than fossil fuel or energy generation. And that’s a huge success story. That’s something that we have done as a community, because it means that the market can now do what it does best, which is no longer incentivizing the building of huge coal fired power plant anymore. That is no longer a rational thing to do.
So by 2030, your window, Neville, we will see the renewable mix of our power grids further increase because the power of price is now at work, right? There are some downsides to that. In addition to the things that Shara’s talking about, governments will need to make sure that that incentive in price is thoroughly inserted into the way the energy markets work so that so that it can have maximum effect.
And there’s another angle to this as well, which is worth talking about, which we are going to see in 2030, we’re going to have a huge pressure placed on our energy grids as we transition mobility cars and trucks from gasoline to and diesel to electric. And that’s going to need thinking about in detail for a couple of reasons.
One, obviously, we’re transitioning the energy source of those of those vehicles, but also the fact that we’re going to connect millions of mobile batteries to the grid, particularly at night when cars don’t tend to move very much and that’s quite an interesting intersection. So I think we will see an evolution of the intersection of mobility and it’s electrification and energy generation and storage.
And then finally, by 2030, I really do hope that funding and focus on a broader renewable set of sources is increased. We do need to bring online and get the cost down of energy sources beyond wind and solar.
Neville Hobson: Well, that’s an excellent perspective from both of you in those areas, and it’s an exciting time, I think, listening to you both and realizing the state we’re currently in and the short time we’ve got to make a real difference to all of these things. So I’d like to thank both of you, Ed and Shara, for your time and for sharing your knowledge and insights about renewable energy and the challenges of achieving net zero by the middle of this century.
Thank you both.
Shara Mohtadi: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Ed White: Thanks, Neville.
Neville Hobson: For detailed information about the “Energy in Transition report” and to download a copy, visit clarivate.com and search Energy In Transition.
Season two of Ideas to Innovation continues with our next episode in a few weeks time. Visit clarivate.com/podcasts for information. Thanks for listening.
Outro: Ideas to innovation from Clarivate.